I read this book as part of the 2017 European Reading Challenge.
by Timothy Egan
Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Mar”) was born in 1823 into a wealthy merchant family in Waterford, Ireland. His father was a member of the British parliament and Thomas was well-educated, a graduate of Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit institution in Lancashire, England. Thomas could have lived the life of a wealthy heir; instead he became involved in the fight for a free Ireland. He witnessed the Great Hunger of the 1840s, when millions died from starvation and millions more emigrated. Known as “Meagher of the Sword,” Thomas put his enormous oratorical skills to work on behalf of the Young Irelanders, working for the repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. It was this work that led Meagher to be a member of the core group behind the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, during which he was arrested, tried, and convicted for sedition. His original sentence of “hanging, drawing, and quartering” was commuted to transportation for life to Tasmania, a penal colony of Great Britain at the time.
Escape From Tasmania
Meagher’s stay on Tasmania was short, about a year and a half, and then he was able to arrange an escape to America in 1852. Within a few short years upon his arrival in New York City, Thomas studied law and journalist and made his living as a lecturer, traveling around the United States, drawing large paying crowds eager to hear him speak on Ireland, the Great Hunger, and his experiences. Meagher took a stand against the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party during the 1850s, which created some financial hardships for him. Thomas also married the daughter of a wealthy, old-blood New York family, Elizabeth Townsend, whose family disowned her due to their marriage.
The Civil War
When the Civil War began, Meagher helped enlist Irish immigrants to fight on the Union side, eventually forming Company K of the 69th Regiment, which became known as the “Fighting 69th” of the New York State Militia. Brigadier General Meagher commanded this brigade, which fought in some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War – Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg – with distinction and suffered great losses.
After the ending of the Civil War, Meagher was appointed territorial governor of Montana, where he became embroiled in a dispute with a group of vigilantes. He died in 1867 under mysterious circumstances, falling overboard from a steamboat in the Missouri river. There was much speculation at the time whether he was murdered or simply fell over as a result of drunkenness, but nothing was ever proven one way or another and his body was never found. Thomas Meagher is honored by statues in numerous locations – the Montana State Capitol in Helena; Waterford, Ireland; the Antietam battlefield – and also has received numerous honors in the years since his death.
I consider myself a bit of an Irish history buff, so I was a bit dismayed to realize the scope of Meagher’s accomplishments and realize that I had never previously heard of him. Obviously I need to do more reading! I’m very glad I saw this book on the “new arrivals” bookshelf at my local public library and picked it up simply because it dealt with an Irish personage. This was a really interesting read; Meagher lived a varied and exciting life, witnessing great events across several continents, and yet felt that he never really found a place he could call home. His home was Ireland, where he could never return due to his conviction of treason, and while the United States eventually became his home, he always yearned for one last glimpse of the old country.